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Getting to the heart of it: Does heart rate matter for your workout?

Wearable fitness trackers are a huge fitness trend that keeps growing. Many of today’s models include heart rate tracking. Fitness watches like Fitbit and Apple Watch monitor your heart rate while exercising and at rest, in addition to calculating daily steps, mileage and other data. Fitness trackers have come a long way since the glorified pedometers they used to be.

Heart rate training is one of the biggest fitness trends of the past few years. This involves keeping your heart rate (the number of times your heart beats in a minute) within a certain range while you exercise, to control the intensity of your workout. The range is expressed as a percentage of your maximum heart rate, which is the greatest number of times your heart can beat in a minute. For example, keeping your heart rate between 60 to 70% of your maximum heart rate to enter the target zone for weight loss.

Boutique gyms that specifically focus on heart rate training have become popular. Each participant wears a heart monitor while an instructor leads a group cardio workout on treadmills or other machines. During class, each person’s stats are projected on a screen for all to see.

But with your own tracker, you don’t need to join a gym to jump in on the monitoring trend and create your own heart rate training workout.

If you are one of the millions of Americans sporting a fitness tracker on your wrist, you are probably wondering what the heart rate on your display means for you, and at what number you should be exercising.

Before we get to that, let’s clear up something.

Is it essential to track your heart rate when you exercise?

For most people, no. If you have heart disease and your doctor has advised against strenuous exercise, then monitoring your heart rate can help you avoid pushing yourself into the danger zone during workouts.

For those who are looking to increase their level of aerobic fitness, or to burn more calories by upping the intensity of a workout, then finding your target heart rate zone and monitoring your heart rate while you exercise, while not essential, can be beneficial in helping you achieve your training goals.

In addition, many people find that using a fitness tracker is motivating. So even if you don’t technically need to know your heart rate, it can be helpful if it encourages you to exercise or to adjust your intensity during a workout.

Alternatives to using a fitness tracker to measure the intensity

No tech gear? No problem. Here are three alternatives.

The Perceived Exertion (PE) scale is a simple way to gauge how hard you are working, without using a monitor. You may have seen this colorful chart in a gym. It’s a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents being at rest and 10 is maximum intensity. It’s up to you to decide at what intensity to work, based on your training goals and how you are feeling that day. Pause at various points in your workout and determine the number at which you are working. Never push yourself to 10, however; that can present a serious risk.

Another easy way is the “talk test.” This method means that if you find it difficult to speak normally while exercising, then you probably need to step down your intensity.

A third method is to check your pulse manually and count the number of beats per minute.

How to find your target heart rate

Your target heart rate is the heart rate level to remain at while performing an exercise. This is usually a range; for example, 120 to 140 beats per minute (BPM). This range depends on the individual and varies with age.

Using an online calculator such as this one from the American Council on Exercise is the easiest way to estimate your target heart range. However, understand that this provides a very general reference. This calculator determines your heart range BPM based solely on your age, and for three levels of fitness: Beginner, intermediate and advanced.

If u would like a more individualized result, you’ll need to figure these numbers manually. This is the method favored by most fitness professionals.

Working out harder isn’t always better

Now that you know your heart rate, you might assume that to get the best workout you should always strive to be in the upper range, going hard. Not so.

Exercising at or near your maximum heart rate can actually be risky because of the stress it puts on your heart. More is not necessarily better. If your workout feels overly strenuous then slow down, regardless of your heart rate.

It’s true that working out at a high intensity burns more calories per minute than doing so at a moderate or lower intensity. But calorie burn depends on a workout’s duration in addition to its intensity. And it’s easier to exercise longer when doing so at a more moderate intensity. If weight loss and fat burning is your goal, this is something to take into consideration.

Doing intervals of moderate or lower intensity, alternated with higher intensity intervals, is a smart strategy for a cardio workout session and enables you to go longer, push harder and become more fit.

Beginners often feel discouraged when first attempting exercise, because they have not yet built up endurance and their workout feels overwhelming hard. This puts beginners at risk for quitting. Remember, it’s ok to start small. Even 5 or 10 minutes a day of low-intensity exercise, such as casually walking, is better than nothing and will benefit you.

How much exercise do you need for a healthy heart?

The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both preferably spread throughout the week.

150 minutes a week is just 30 minutes a day, five days a week. While you should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day, you can break this up into three 10-minute segments throughout your day if that works better for you.

And it doesn’t have to be in a gym; all physical activity counts. Find something you enjoy doing, and carve out some time for it.

Knowledge is power

By paying attention to your heart rate and staying within your best range, you can improve your fitness and optimize calorie and fat burning, while not overdoing it and putting yourself at risk.

And that’s the heart of the matter.

authors photo

Michelle Rogers

Michelle Rogers

Certified Personal Trainer

Michelle Rogers is a certified personal trainer who specializes in healthy living for adults over 40. She leads classes and workshops online at Reachable Fitness, her virtual exercise studio. Find out more at and connect on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @MRhealthyliving.

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